Japan’s Struggle for Renewables

The Fukushima disaster shook Japan to its core.

But as with Egypt’s revolution earlier in the year, the result has yet to be decided.

That’s because the entrenched nuclear industry will not let go of Japan’s economy without a fight. 

Prime Minister Naoto Kan was politically weakened by the crisis, but his decision to commit to a renewable future is being challenged by politicians, bureaucrats and utility companies like Kansai Electric Co., most of which are associated with the former ruling party, the Liberal Democrats.

Kan’s chief business ally in the fight is Masayoshi Son, who wants to leverage $100 million of his own money into a $1 billion investment in large solar farms. But to make that work, he needs access to transmission systems and a guarantee utilities will buy his power.

Political power, not technology, is the real issue here. Japan has built a nuclear industry that supplies 30% of its electricity, and was due to raise that to 53% by 2020, through careful cultivation (critics would call it bribery) of small rural villages, which accepted the plants in exchange for aid and jobs.

Son can’t offer that. Wind farms don’t generate the ongoing jobs of nuclear plants, and Japan’s solar industry is relatively weak compared with that of China.

The result is that even though polls show 77% of Japanese want nuclear plants gradually phased out, they may not want to pay the cost, described by a series of Asahi Shimbun editorials  as including a complete commitment to conserving electricity, in order to reduce demand and allow decommissioning.

Ironically the Womens’ World Cup could tip the balance. Karina Maruyama, who scored the goal that upset Germany, is a former employee of Tepco, the owner of the Fukushima reactor, and worked there for four years. She blogged in support of Tepco during the crisis and was heavily criticized in April, but no one is criticizing her now.

Will they keep criticizing nuclear, or will Japan’s need for energy trump its desire for renewable energy? The question remains in the balance.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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